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Council reverses, OKs Walmart liquor license

Jun 20, 2013 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

The Riverton City Council has overturned its original vote and approved a retail liquor license transfer from the China Panda restaurant to Walmart.

China Panda had submitted paperwork to city staff requesting a restaurant liquor license so its existing retail liquor license could be transferred to Walmart.

Council member Lars Baker began what would become an emotional discussion Tuesday when he suggested the issue be reconsidered. He said he did not feel like he made the right choice when the city voted on the matter June 4.

"After the last council meeting I was disquieted personally on the decision we made on the liquor permit transfer to Walmart," Baker said. "I don't recall, in the six years I've been on the council... I've never felt this way."

Mayor Ron Warpness and council member Mary Ellen Christensen voted not to reconsider the matter.

At the previous meeting, Warpness and council members Baker, Christensen and Jonathan Faubion voted against the transfer while councilmen Todd Smith, Eric Heiser and Richard Gard favored the transfer.

"My personal opinion is that we probably don't need another liquor store in Riverton, and yet there's another issue, and that is that the sale of alcohol is legal and the permits are in place," Baker told the council. "And if Walmart or anybody else wants to buy one from somebody else (then) that seems to me like it should be a legal and acceptable transaction."

He said that in this case, the free enterprise factor comes into play, and granting Walmart a license would not necessarily mean the city's alcohol problem would increase.

Smith said there would be no penalties from the state, because Riverton already has exceeded the number of retail liquor licenses allowed.

"Several communities in the state have more than those numbers so that should not be a consideration as far as transacting that existing license from one entity to another," Smith said. "We're in no different shoes from any other communities around the state."

This seemed to have steered Faubion's change of vote.

"I don't think it's a legitimate reason anymore," he said.

Gard supported his original vote and said Walmart has spent a lot of money in Riverton, and if it decided to close the store, it would be an "eyesore" for the community.

During the meeting June 4, Heiser said he was against the

transfer, but he changed his mind. He explained Tuesday that the main reason people are against giving Walmart the license is because they cannot separate "emotion from the equation."

"When you remove emotion, it's another business asking for a completely legal transfer of a license," Heiser said. "The problem in this case, and where the emotion kicks in, is the name of that business is Walmart. And like it or not, that name evokes very, very strong reactions on both sides of the aisle from a lot of people."

Mainly, Heiser added, because it puts locally-owned businesses out of business.

"(But) that's not their fault. That's free enterprise," Heiser said. "Whether you like them or hate them, they've not done anything wrong -- we're not going to tell a business that they cannot be in on something when everyone else had the chance to do it."

The reason she voted against it, Christensen said, was because Riverton already has enough liquor stores. She also disagreed with Gard, saying many other businesses have contributed their share to the community.

Reconsideration of votes

Warpness said he didn't disagree with the fair treatment the other council members spoke of, but he reiterated that the alcohol problem in Riverton affects the community, and the transfer is not in its best interest.

"We're not selling bread on the street corner, we're selling something that is terribly destructive in our society," he said. "I don't disagree with the reasoning -- the abuse of alcohol is the problem not alcohol itself. ... What is the message we're going to be sending?"

Christensen expressed discontent that she was not part of the discussions the other council members said they had with each other. Heiser said he only talked to Faubion about his vote, and that there was no pre-planning to bring it up again during the meeting. City administrator Steven Weaver said Baker asked him directly how he could bring up the topic again and that no prior consultation occurred other than that.

Christensen became upset and left the meeting before the final vote on China Panda's liquor license could be made.

"It's obvious to me tonight that this was all pre-planned or talked about, but it just seems wrong when I get so many calls," she said. "The citizens don't get to come back up here and talk."

"I was not consulted by councilman Baker," Heiser said. "I was shocked that it was brought up for reconsideration -- I had not talked to any other council member about reconsideration."

After Christensen left, Warpness was the only "no" vote on the transfer of the license to Walmart. The restaurant liquor license for China Panda also was voted on; Faubion voted no and Christensen was absent.

Bob Woodward of Woodward's Liquor Store arrived after he said he saw the discussion on TV. He said he was displeased that no second public hearing could be held and that the topic was not on the agenda.

Weaver said that according to the Robert's Rules of Order that the city adopted to run its meetings, the issue didn't have to be on the agenda, and the public was given the opportunity to speak during the public hearing June 4. Weaver added that it could be reconsidered again in the next meeting if the council makes a motion to do so, and it is seconded by a council member.

"There was no back room deal, there was no consorting with other council members or anything of the sort," Heiser said. "I think it's unfortunate that because of Robert's rules we have to take it up at the next meeting and that's it -- we're bound by those rules, that's the only part that makes me a little uncomfortable."

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Riverton City Council